"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, March 31, 2023

Three stories by Mary Webb (1881-1927)

Readers unfamiliar with the fiction of Mary Webb may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories. 

"The Name-Tree" (1921) [from Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain] is a story from an arch age of sublimated emotions and succulent subtexts.

[....] that brooding place—that place where mists lingered and melodies sounded, and man wrestled with the spirit of earth.

Laura, living in genteel poverty with her father on their ancestral property Cherry Orchard, is beset by attentions of a newcomer to the area, magnate and landowner Julius Winter. Cherry Orchard is to be sold, and Winter makes it clear to her that he will accept either possession of the property or Laura herself. "Your love should be given to a man. Such passion as yours should bear fruit."

The worldly man obsesses over the unworldly woman.

[....] He had not thought passion of just that quality existed in the modern world. Certainly the women he had known had not possessed it. This woman had it, and she wasted it on a place. He watched her, standing slim and gauche in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.

Winter's ultimatum: "I'll come for your answer this day next week, Laura. If it's no, you and your father will go at once."

The fruit of Laura's name-tree, a Morello, does ripen, and she makes her decision.

"The Name-Tree" is a story the contemporary reader might find too distanced in tone. Still, struggles over class privilege and exploitation predominate; new-money Julius slips easily into an older patriarchal role, adding emotional piquancy to questions of buying and selling, rites and rights.

[....] The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her.

Laura, in contrast, is "as fond of the nettles as of the cowslips." The value for her of ancient family property lies in continuity, not title. "I'd as lief think of selling myself" as selling Cherry Orchard, she assures herself. 

And that is exactly what Winter will demand.  

*   *   *

"Mr. Tallent's Ghost" (1926) [The Virago Book of Ghost Stories] is a droll tale of haunting, similar in tone to E. F. Benson's more tongue-in-cheek work. 

The narrator, a solicitor, meets Mr. Tallent on a rainy day during a mountain vacation. Fighting boredom, he agrees to listen to one of the man's unpublished pieces of fiction. Agonies of miserable boredom ensue. Years later, after Tallent's death, the narrator must carry out his final wish:  spend the estate's small fortune arranging publication of a boxful of the amateur author's horrible stories. A dozen of Tallent's financially hopeless relatives dispute this use of the estate. A legal free-for-all ensues, and all parties delaying publication are haunted at night by the author himself, reciting his manuscripts out loud. Webb excels here in the multiple peripeteias of a dispute that seems capable of rivaling Jarndyce v Jarndyce, until non-spectral reality provides its own punchline. 

*   *   *

"The Sword" (1934) [in The Ash-Tree Press Annual Macabre 2003: Ghosts at 'The Cornhill' 1931-1939] is a poignant short story about "loving honor more" than happiness and romantic contentment. Its macabre subtext is carefully husbanded. Richard Gledd is prone to staring off in the distance, "his homeless eyes [looking] across the gaiety into the dark night beyond." Comrades in arms during the Great War noted his "sense of the deep, icy integrity which lay in his soul like a sheathed sword and made him as absolute, omnipotent, terrible, and beautiful as a god."

He rejects all appropriate marriage prospects. 

His friends said of him that he was the man who perpetually enquired for the goods that were not in the shop, not anywhere in the world…. Not one of the flower-soft, bird-voiced, gazelle-eyed girls he met could call him home.

Webb returns to home, homeless, and homing several times in "The Sword." When Gledd finally meets the woman he has sought, the reader at first assumes she too is a homeless, unattached soul. 

The final scene is quickly executed. The unbending authority of Gledd's aroused disapproval calls up a preternatural manifestation keen as any drawn blade.

*   *   *

Mary Webb was a successful author in her lifetime. Women's social predicaments were at the forefront in her bestsellers, as they are in two stories discussed above. Both Laura in "The Name-Tree" and Eucharis in "The Sword" face marriage as an ultimatum. Laura bests her suitor, thwarting him for the first time. Eucharis is not so lucky: giving up her "second-best life" for the answered prayers of marriage turns out to be a mistake, around which others precipitate. 

[....] as his look settled upon her there was in it the same icy, fiery dreadfulness that had been in it once when he court-martialled a man for robbing the wounded. Steely, unpitying, his eyes forced hers to look at him. No word was spoken….

As a contrast, "Mr. Tallent's Ghost" is filled with no such gravitas. I wrote above that it recalled E. F. Benson's lighter stories. But more than that, it brings to mind Saki's unrest-cure stories, wherein hard-working middle class people are pulled backward through a thorny hedgerow of topsy-turvy at the hands of Clovis. Only by a hair's breadth is Tallent's executor permitted a happy ending.

Mary Webb seeds these stories with quotidian miseries. But as each story unfolds, the everyday is amalgamated and complicated by something still stranger. Whether melodrama, farce, or tragedy, the strangeness itself lingers when everyday unhappiness is temporarily dispelled.


31 March 2023

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